Downs beats Duverger? Canada 2015–it’s election day

If polls are to believed, the Liberals may be eating into soft Conservative vote in today’s Canadian election.

The conventional wisdom always was that the Tories could be defeated only by coordination or strategic voting between Liberals and NDP. Yet the NDP vote has been holding quite steady recently, while Liberals have taken the lead.

I never believed the coordination expectation (except in its weaker forms, which we may have seen happening in late Sept as the NDP slowly slid in polls). It seems we may have to score one for the old median-voter theorem, if in fact soft Tory voters are putting the Liberals within striking position of a parliamentary majority.

If so, chalk one up to Downs, and one against Duverger. By Downsian expectations, the winner of a two-party contest is the party that is closest to the median, and clearly it has come down to a contest between the incumbent Conservatives and the challenging Liberals. On the other hand, there is no sign of a significant collapse of the third party, the NDP. So Duverger’s Law, which says plurality systems tend to produce two-party systems, will take yet another hit from yet another Canadian election. There is just that stubborn third-party vote–and in much of Quebec, it is more like a four-party system.

This was the old norm in Canada–governing competition between the Conservative and Liberals, but with a persistent third party. The 2011 election, which put the NDP in second place, looks like an aberration. Yet today’s election will probably be the best ever by the NDP, aside from 2011. That is the critical sense in which it remains very un-Duvergerian, even if it is accurate to say that it is ending up rather Downsian.

34 thoughts on “Downs beats Duverger? Canada 2015–it’s election day

  1. The poll aggregator shows a pretty consistent downward slope in the yellow NDP line almost perfectly negatively correlated with the upward Liberal line for the last 30 days, consistent with strategic vote shifting away from the NDP to the Liberals. Maybe a little bit of the NDP losses can be attributed to the Bloquistes, but that seems unlikely to me.

    • Re: consistent downward slope – Exactly.

      I had the unique (for me) experience of having family in each of the campaign teams. Last weekend at the family cottage was a riot.

      I can say with some inside knowledge that Mulcair’s NDP made a Downsian play for the median voter, while Trudeau’s Liberals made the strategic choice to outflank them on the fiscal left.

      Mulcair’s move wasn’t successful for a number of reasons, but one of them was that it wasn’t believable to enough Liberal and especially Conservative voters. Conservative voters who didn’t want to vote Conservative either stayed home or trusted the Liberals to ‘campaign left and govern centre’.

      Since this failed, the Liberals were able to overtake the NDP in the 2nd half of the campaign. This kicked in a Duvergerian response by NDP voters.

      Then came the niqab issue, the NDP plummet in Quebec, the Bloq got some life back, and this sank the national NDP numbers further, heightening the Duvergerian shift to the Liberals outside Quebec in the last week.

      MSS, your observation that Conservative voters went Liberal late makes little sense considering how the Tories picked up voters during the campaign. The major swing was NDP going Liberal, and the Liberals campaigned further from the median voter. A minor late swing was NDP going Conservative in Quebec over the niqab.

      The national swing in the dying days was about 5%, and was caught by public polls nearly perfectly, much to the relief of the polling firms.

      Meanwhile, I have seen private riding-level polls that give evidence to a 20% swing from NDP to Liberal in the last 4 days of the campaign. Some ridings that were tied a week out were won by 40%!

      Some of my observations from this campaign are:
      – we saw the most strategic voting that I’ve seen in my 9 federal elections, likely because this was the first campaign to start with the premise that any of the 3 parties could have formed government
      – strategic voting is poorly executed. Voters see the national numbers, very few understand or seek local projections.
      – strategic voters that don’t follow local polls or projections also don’t bother to know whether they have an incumbent opposition MP. Note how many strong NDP incumbents lost their seats to Liberals. Even in maximum informed-voter Ottawa Centre with the highest turnout of any riding.

      • Thanks Ross. The Canadian Liberals seem to have hit that sweet spot that centrist-leftish parties elsewhere have aimed for and missed: backed by left-wing voters to keep out the right, and back by centre-right voters to keep out the far (well… further) left.
        This might be what the NO2AV campaign was thinking in Britain, with its otherwise cryptic claims that AV would mean the Lib Dems would be permanent coalition kingmakers, of course, AV would only help the Lib Dems if their first-preference percentage was relatively high, in the mid-twenties at the very least, in a significant number of constituencies. Otherwise they’d end up like the Australian Democrats — everyone’s second choice but no-one’s first, so zero seats in the House of Representatives (at least, zero won by candidates standing under the Australian Democrats party banner: they did recruit a few wet Liberal defectors).. Ironically, since the AV referendum revealed (if nothing else) that a large number of British voters really, really really disliked Nick Clegg personally, this fear of the Lib Dems turning into a British FDP was probably, shall we say, overstated.
        In most cases, a centrist party would need either a Condorcet system, or else STV with around half a dozen seats (eg, the ADs in the Australian Senate), to benefit from being everyone’s second choice: the Canadian Liberals have managed to pull this off under FPTP, and thus have governed Canada for seven of the last ten decades. It’s not surprising Bobby Newport beat Leslie Knope.

      • @Tom Round. While this certainly describes the Liberals’ success in this election (being a first choice through fear of left or right), it has no bearing on the first 5 decades you refer to, which were largely 2 party systems. I don’t think it captures their success since the 2-plus party system came about in the early 60s either. From the early 60s to 2000, the success of the Liberals was grounded in playing the federalist-nationalist game, which crowded out the left-vs-right dichotomy. Unsurprisingly, the PCs and Liberals in this period were often hard to distinguish from one another. It’s hard to believe that a country can spend 40 years in that wilderness, but it happened.

        In the mid 80s the Liberals lost their federalist-nationalist edge, and in 1988 had to deal more with the left-right spectrum squeeze. But they lost that time. Then in 1990 the PCs started splintering and the Liberals could literally just about lose the country and still get re-elected, until the conservative parties united again in late 2003.

        Post 2004 though is a new era: dominated by left-vs-right, and the Liberals in the squeeze. They lost votes and seats for 4 elections straight – and then a majority. Which makes this election an even bigger accomplishment for the Liberals: this is the first time they’ve won a majority against united conservatives since 1980!

        Meanwhile, Harper’s biggest gift to the country was in making an alternative to federalist-nationalist struggle viable. Ten years later, we take for granted NOT having existential angst each election.

      • Thanks, Ross. I’ve gleaned my impression second-hand from the Australian media over the years, which seems to find Canadian politics fascinatingly opaque (given that the constitutional structure is so similar to Australia’s, but the party and electoral structure so different). I defer to your first-hand interpretation.

  2. It looks like the Liberals so far have an absolute majority. It seems as the pollsters are wrong here. No electoral reform here. Perhaps the alternative vote could be introduced, so as to lessen vote splitting with the other left leaning parties.

  3. This is obviously a Canadian plot against Fruits and Votes: no constitutional crisis, no minority government, no fingernails in the ceiling efforts to retain power, no need for viceregal derring do.

    • The pollsters were the ones who lost the election, they all should be fired, as they couldn’t predict a Liberal majority.

      • I think the polls did a rather good job of spotting the Liberal sprint, and some polls from the day before the election had them with 39-40%. It certainly looked to me like a majority was a real possibility. If we’re looking at the polling averages, extending the Liberal trend at the same speed it had been progressing over the past week comes very close to their ultimate share of the vote.

  4. Well. Fourteen years, ten months and two weeks of Canadians laughing at the US for electing Dubya… and tonight it ends forever.
    If you’re going to elect an amicable airhead to run your country on the basis of his surname, you should at least get him to run something smaller first. If not the state of Texas, then at least a McDonald’s franchise or something.

    • I think perhaps, Tom, we need to achieve a degree of political stability that does not emulate the very worst excesses of the Fourth Republic before we slag off at Canada too much.

      An extended campaign in a parliamentary system tests leaders in a way that the US electoral process does not. Trudeau may have merited ‘airhead’ at the outset of the campaign but airheads do not execute flawless 78 day electoral campaigns. Trudeau has the ultimate prime ministerial qualification. He has run a successful parliamentary opposition and taken his party into government. He has also managed to take his party from third to first place while neatly outmanoeuvring this second party on policy issues.

      • Yes, but only two years ago Anthony John Abbott was a political genius with his finger on the pulse of Middle Australia. Turned out, though, that knocking down an incumbent government is easier than actually governing successfully.
        Everything I have read or seen about Trudeau Jr confirms my belief that hereditary succession (de jure or de facto) is a bad way to choose leaders because you usually get reversion to the mean in spades. In Justin’s case, nostalgia and glamour were clearly deciders for the Liberal Party base and preselectors in a way they weren’t for Dubya. (The percentage of GOP voters and donors who think Bush Senior’s 1989-1992 presidency was a Camelot would round down to zero).

      • Abbot and Trudeau ran very different campaigns and Abbot’s weakness as opposition leader ultimately destroyed his prime ministership. Abbot was a policy-free zone who saw his job strictly as stoking and pandering to our worst impulses in a series of three-word slogans. As prime minister he relied on his control of the royal prerogative (knighthoods, Prince Philip, Syria) and his control of the cabinet agenda (citizenship stripping, on-water matters, Dash is coming to get us) to make unilateral decisions without consulting ministers or his caucus. His mandate was kilometres wide and millimetres deep.

        Trudeau ran on deficits in a neoliberal world. I was a tad stunned listening to a CBC panel riff that he would triumph at the first leaders’d debate if he ‘remembered to wear pants’. Where Abbot got pretty much a free run from the media on a program that simply could not work Trudeau had to overcome considerable media opposition based precisely on the issues you mention.

  5. Two points. The pollsters didn’t get this one wrong. The Liberal surge happened literally in the three days before the election, and the polls tracked it. The final polls in fact had them at 39%, which is what they got. It really seems that people ignored electoral politics until just before the election, then decided to vote Liberal.

    Canada is known for its electoral volatility, but this was an extreme example. The Liberal vote more than doubled since 2011 in percentage terms. Not only that, but the 20.6% increase sets a record for the change in the party vote since at least World War 2 (the Conservatives lost 26.8% of the vote in 1921, mostly due to losing all their western support to the Progressives). The Liberals won big across all income groups and regions, except for Alberta/ the Praries, where they did much better than expected.

    The American term “landslide” doesn’t really work with multi-party systems, where you can get below 40% and win big, but a term for these sorts of elections is “stampede”. This was a stampede election. This has happened before in Canadian history, notably in 1984, and Canadian voters are somewhat prone to this, but this was an extreme example.

    Checking the data, this is actually the third best NDP result in NDP/ CCF history in terms of popular vote, and they won more seats than in 1988, their second best popular vote result. The bulk of their seat losses were in Quebec, which has a tendency outside of Montreal to block vote, but to block vote for different parties each election. They went from 1 riding in Quebec in 2008, to 59 in 2011, to 16 in 2015. Easy come, easy go. Outside Quebec, the trend was 36 ridings to 44 ridings to 30 ridings 2008-15, which is more reasonable.

    The Conservatives won 99 ridings and 31.9% of the vote, as opposed to 99 ridings and 29.6% of the vote in 2004, the first election Harper fought as leader. Easy come, easy go.

    • Surely 1993 was the biggest-ever stampede… The PCs lost almost 27% of the vote that year (bigger than this year’s Liberal change) and went from majority to 2 seats,

      And the Conservatives’ 99 seats in 2004 was out of 308, while the total is 338 now, so they now have a lower proportion of seats on a somewhat higher proportion of the vote.

      • And I’d argue 1984 *was* a landslide… most votes in every single province and territory, and an actual majority of the popular vote? I think that qualifies.

      • Lastly, this is the NDP’s *4th* best result in popular vote terms, after 2011, 1988 and 1980. In terms of seats I think it’s important to count proportion of seats, not number, as the number of total seats has increased since then. Taking that into account, this is the NDP’s *3rd* best result after 2011 and 1988.

  6. The bottom line is that NDP’s showing in yesterday’s election, while a huge setback from where they stood four years ago and from the perspective of their expectations of victory at the outset, is still one of the party’s best results, and hardly a “disaster” as some news media outlets (such as the BBC) would have it.

    Incidentally, Duverger himself wrote that while on the one hand FPTP hindered the development of smaller parties in Canada, the latter were helped by regional differences, and yesterday’s vote was no exception: 13% of the seats with 19.7% of the vote is actually a very respectable result for a third party under FPTP – Britain’s Liberal Democrats would have killed for that kind of “disaster” last May. (Curiously enough, BQ had a nearly identical outcome in Quebec, winning 12.8% of the province’s seats with 19.3% of the vote.)

    As for the prospects of electoral reform, I think it’s safe to say that having won 54.4% of the House of Commons seats with 39.5% of the vote will be a very strong disincentive for Mr. Trudeau’s incoming Liberal government to act on the matter, at least for the short term. On the other hand, as noted on the CBC election broadcast last night, the incoming Liberal parliamentary caucus will be full of neophytes (at least at the level of federal politics), and I could see electoral reform brandished by the government to keep a potentially unruly caucus in line.

  7. Has there ever in the history of the world been a single party majority government that enacted PR right after it benefited from winner-take-all voting?
    If not, perhaps Canada will be the first?

    • New Zealand 1993. The Trudeau government have not promised PR. They have promised a review and an end to FPTP. Their thoroughly nasty experience of the pointy end of FPTP in 2011 may have opened the Liberals’ eyes.

      • Probably important to note that by many accounts the NZ case was a mistake – the National Party leader (Jim Bolger) seems to have made the campaign promise on national television during an interview, without having consulted his party, and without anything regarding electoral reform being in the National manifesto for the 1990 election.
        Suddenly it was a campaign promise that they couldn’t back out of.
        Both National and the NZ Labour party campaigned against the introduction of MMP in the referenda that led to its enactment.

        Essentially, stuff happens. It can be hard to predict.

  8. To reply to the original question, I think that in order for this to be evidence for Downs, there would have had to be a clear shift, or at least positioning, of the Liberals in the centre relative to the NDP. At least on some issues, I would say the situation has been the opposite of that – with the NDP promising budget discipline while the Liberals called for deficit spending on infrastructure.

  9. I think it’s safe to say that having won 54.4% of the House of Commons seats with 39.5% of the vote will be a very strong disincentive for Mr. Trudeau’s incoming Liberal government to act

    The Liberals have been supporting AV recently, which likely would not make majorities any less likely.

    • What AV would do is significantly change the composition of the majority. In the unlikely event I found myself voting in a Canadian election I would almost certainly vote Green or NDP. On this occasion I would have had no choice but to vote for the party most likely to displace the Conservatives, a choice that Elizabeth May noted many Canadians were forced to make.

      Under a happier electoral regime I would vote 1 Green 2 NDP 3 Liberal.

      In time, no doubt, we will know just how much of the Liberal majority is composed of voters coerced into tactical voting by FPTP. The parties would be forced to negotiate the exchange of preferences which would be an opportunity for the Greens and NDP to directly effect the policies of a Liberal government, an opportunity that FPTP denies them. I am not sure what democratic principle, or even partisan advantage, the NDP thinks to claim by forcing its supporters to vote for someone else.

      When the UK voted on AV we were told in this blog that AV must be rejected to increase the chances of proportional representation, a position not supported by the UK Electoral Reform Society. That was now some little time ago. How’s that progress towards proportional representation going in Britain?

    • To the extent that NDP voters are more likely to preference Liberals over Conservatives than vice versa, there is an incentive for AV (Which after all is not unknown to Canada, although the precedents are not considered inspiring).
      For other examples of incoming governments changing the electoral system, see Labor in New South Wales (1981) and Queensland (1990) changing from full compulsory AV to optional preferential av. Admittedly not as big a change as from FPTP to some form of AV (which in turn is not as big a change as from single-member districts to some form of proportional voting), but still a fairly significant change within the parameters of Australian politics. In both cases the new government was smarting from years of feeling ripped off under the old system — NSW Labor because compulsory preferences had cost it a seat in the 1974 Senate election (which in turn cost the Whitlam government power in 1975); Queensland Labor because full-preferential had let the Nationals govern with only 20 to 40% of the vote after extracting preferences from very reluctant Liberal voters; both parties because the DLP was seen to have used full-preferential to keep Labor out of power from 1955 to 1972.
      If the Liberals have a similar grievance against Harper governing for 10 years on only 40% of the vote, this may give them impetus to enact something.
      Also, keep in mind there are variations on AV, as those endlessly imaginative constitutional creators the British have devised in their desperate quest to avoid having to concede that the convicts in Australia know anything worth knowing about electoral systems. Eg, one could allow a single second preference only, and/or legislate that on the second count, all but the two highest candidates are summarily excluded, even if the top two have less than 66% of the vote combined. Variations like these (I’m describing, not endorsing) would enable Liberal/ NDP cooperation while still ensuring that in most cases the candidate with most first preferences will win and that the winning candidate will have a reasonably high first preference vote in both absolute and relative terms.

      • The NSW legislative assembly was elected by PRSTV from 1918 to 1926. The system was introduced by the Nationalists who won 50 seats out of 90 at the 1917 general election.

      • Of course, the possibility of AV could have more advantages for the Liberals. Polling done on preferential voting (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/why-a-change-to-your-ballot-would-give-the-ndp-an-edge-next-election/article10454286/) suggests that Conservative preferences (when they were expressed) would flow heavily towards the Liberals, giving them an advantage over the NDP in Liberal-NDP races. Indeed, NDP votes flow to the Liberals more weakly than Conservative votes do.

        The polling is a bit old, and things might have changed since then. However, it looks like AV would be a smart move for the Liberals, as it would be helpful in head-to-head races against Conservatives and New Democrats.

      • I’d expect a large number of Conservative electors would simply exhaust their votes, an option not available to them in to the Globe and Mail poll. Judging from Queensland that would probably be the offical party recommendation.

        The Conservatives themselves are a fairly recent amalgamation of the Canadian Alliance and the old Progressive Conservatives. AV may well encourage those two movements to form separate parties again. Recently amalgamated parties that have just suffered a spectacular defeat are not the stablest entities in the world. On the other hand, the Conservatives may find themselves in a somewhat Queensland situation where it is not possible to present a candidate for prime minister who awakens memories of Stephen Harper, but not possible to win a national election without the votes of Harper enthusiasts..

      • A mistake on my part. I have a disability with numbers, specially when they need to be transcribed rather than cut and pasted. The University of Queensland Union once amended their constitution to provide that someone, anyone, other than the chairperson of council count the votes at meetings, because I always got them wrong.

  10. Pingback: Downs? Duverger? Both? Canada 2015 | Fruits and Votes

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